The Top 6 Ways to Communicate With Your Teenager
How can you engage, really engage, with your son or daughter?
By Bob Selden, June 2016
“Why do I have to get stuck with such dumb parents?”
And you know what? They’re right!
It’s not that we parents are “dumb” it just seems that way to some teenagers. Why? During the teenage years, people are very black and white in their thinking – there are no shades of grey as can be seen by older adults. People do not mature emotionally until their mid-twenties. The limitations of the teenage brain have been well publicised, helping parents, teachers, and others understand why it may be difficult for them to meet our expectations for managing emotions, handling risks, responding to relationships, and engaging in complex school work or employment. In early and mid-adolescence the brain undergoes considerable growth and pruning, moving generally from back to front areas of the cerebral cortex.
At the same time as young adults are learning and experiencing new things about the world, the parts of the brain that process things such as impulses and emotions, calibration of risk and reward, problem-solving, prioritising, thinking ahead, self-evaluation and long-term planning, are changing rapidly. Hence we can see wild swings in both logic and emotion over short periods of time.
As a parent how do you manage in such changing times?
“Dad, I can see your logic, but I don’t agree with you”.
How to have the conversation with your “learning” teenager?
The secret to having a good conversation with your teenage son or daughter is to follow a defined six-step process and stick to it.
However, when considering your approach, take into account the factors that are relevant or important to teenagers in general:
- They are in a learning phase.
- Their logic is superb. However, the potential for misunderstanding is high – they see things in black and white whereas in reality (and for us) it is often grey.
- They are “embarrassment averse” – being embarrassed particularly in front of their friends, or even siblings, is almost terminal.
- They like being approached as an adult. They do not like being lectured to. They need to be listened to and heard.
- They have a high sensitivity to double standards and dishonesty – if you are being dishonest they will pick up on it very quickly and dismiss anything you are saying. For example if discussing drugs and you drink alcohol regularly, they are likely to dismiss your argument against drug use.
- They are hyper sensitive to criticism.
- And finally, they know much more than we parents think. For example particularly the discussions they have with their peers around sex.
Your son or daughter may also be developing a real sense of dedication or commitment to a topic, cause or value at this time, so for example “integrity”, “friendship”, “loyalty” or perhaps “climate change”, “equality” or other social issues could be a key driver for them. Consider the value or issue that is foremost for your son and/or daughter so that you can build this into the conversation at the appropriate time.
Remember also that it’s important to do some self-reflection and be aware of how you normally behave with your children:
- Am I a controlling parent?
- Do I listen to my teenager (really listen)?
- Do I allow my teenager’s opinions and tastes to differ from my own?
I trust there’s some honest self-examination going on here. If you’re in any way kidding yourself your teenager will see right through it lessening the effectiveness of the following suggestions.
So how do you open the conversation?
Before looking at the most appropriate words, finding the best time and place is critical for the teenager discussion. For example over the dinner table is probably not the best place and time to discuss issues as it may heighten their embarrassment. Far better particularly for a one-on-one, to talk with the teenager at the time that the two of you are doing something together that you both enjoy. This automatically gives you some common ground.
It can also be helpful if you have the conversation when travelling to an event in the car or even walking. Here you are automatically triangulating the conversation – you are side-by-side and the issue is out in front of you both.
How do I start the conversation? How do I engage with my son or daughter?
This is the most difficult aspect for parents. After all if it’s a touchy subject such as sex or drugs, you’ve probably given it a good deal of thought and in the process perhaps become a little stressed.
Make sure the conversation is about learning and not blame. In fact try and use the word “learn” as much as possible as this is what they are doing. For example,
“This may be something you will have to learn. I had to learn it as well”.
Here is the six-step process. Keep in mind you can only script the opening – the words and discussion will develop from there so make your start a good one.
- Open a “channel” by asking for their help. For example:
“John, I have an issue (problem/concern) that I need your help with”.
Keep this as a request for help.
- Engage them by expressing the feeling that has led to your emotions being raised. For example:
“I’m worried” or concerned/anxious/afraid/apprehensive – whatever your feelings are.
This can be really tough – remain silent. Eventually they will respond (it may seem like an eternity, but is likely to be only seconds). “What are you worried about Mum?” – You now have them engaged.
- Construct meaning around the topic:
“I’m worried that …” This is where you construct meaning for them so although these are your concerns, they should be expressed in a way that your daughter or son can relate to them.
- Converge on agreement (this may take some time). A good starting request is:
“How can you help me overcome my concern?”
- Remember every conversation evolves so that both people are different as a result. You want this to be a positive experience for your young adult. How do you feel? How do they feel? One way of making an assessment is to ask them what they are going to say (to others) and do as a result of this discussion. This should be a genuine enquiry, not an inquisition to see if your message got through.
- Finally take some action. Ultimately you still have responsibility for their welfare; there must be an agreement as to how consequences for non-performance of their agreed responsibility will be handled. For example, if the conversation has led to a change in their responsibilities, a good way of testing the impact it has had is to discuss “consequences” in a positive way.
Above all, keep your language positive. Avoid the word “don’t” with sentences such as “Please don’t do that again” which can be rephrased positively as “I really like it when you … can you keep doing that for me please?”
Remember it’s a period of challenge for young adults as they frequently question parent authority. They can go to great lengths to remind you that you aren’t the font of all wisdom as they once thought.
Will they ever get over having a “dumb parent”? Following these six steps may just start to change their opinion!
Bob Selden is the author of a new book “Don’t: How using the right words will change your life”